‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Now, can anyone tell me what “heteronormativity” means?’
Nottingham Playhouse’s new production of Pride and Prejudice has its cake and eats it with a huge smirk on its face, and it’s delightful. This is a play that assumes at least half of its audience will be thinking ‘Oh God, really, another Austen adaptation?’ and both pays loving tribute to the book and satirises its cultural ubiquity. Comedian Sara Pascoe’s script is laugh-out-loud funny, but also provides wry meta-commentary on the story it is telling, generating its best comic moments through its, and the audience’s, self-awareness.
The sisters are distinguished through beautifully simple quirks, such as Alice Haig’s hilariously aggressive Kitty or Olivia Onyehara’s gossipy Lydia. The star-making turn, in a professional debut, is Rachel Partington as Mary, whose execution of perfectly timed and surreal non sequiturs, an obsession with collecting envelopes and an insatiable appetite for cakes allowed her to steal every scene she is in. Rebecca D’Souza’s Jane is quiet but sharp, and Bethan Mary-James is a centre of calm, an entirely sympathetic and bookish Elizabeth with a cutting tongue, but who doesn’t unbalance the ensemble effect. Adrian Irvine and Kerry Peers preside over the Bennet scenes exactly as one would expect, Mrs Bennet’s constant energy and histrionics perfectly countered by the unflappable, and enjoyingly grumpy, Mr Bennet with his ever-present newspaper.
The main story crackles with ideas. Set within an enormous gilded birdcage, the scene shifts from sitting room to ballroom to sitting room with minimal fuss, but always within the boundaries of the large bars. Director Susannah Tresilian adds variety to the environments with a range of entertaining ideas, including the use of mannequins to pad out ballroom scenes (leading to a brilliantly designed dance sequence where Haig walks the room, entirely straight-faced, with the top half of a huge doll), isolated soliloquies for letter reading (Caroline Collins and Jane deliver the letters of their worsening situation in tandem with one another directly to the audience, efficiently aligning their growing misfortunes), and even the occasional breakaway musical number. These songs, contributed by Emmy the Great, are witty but come across as very thin in their orchestration. As a form of choric commentary, however, particularly as the girls ask the audience not to be judged on their machinations and lecture the audience on laws of entailment, they’re potentially show-stopping.
These moments of awareness are extended in a series of present-day frame narratives that show various groups responding to the ideas of the play – a schoolteacher (doubled by Elizabeth, lecturing to a modern day Kitty and Lydia), a group of actors rehearsing the play, two TV producers editing their own version while having an affair, and a TED speaker lecturing on Austen. These scenes stand in part for Pascoe’s own questions and struggles in wrangling the text into a contemporary form, debating the omission or inclusion of scenes, the politics and sympathies of the various characters, and the question of whether love can even exist under such conditions. Everyone is looking for their own angle on the play – hilariously, the contemporary actor playing Wickham is convinced that he is the hero of the story, a reading which the besotted actor playing Elizabeth is more than happy to approve – and trying to reconcile their own ideas of feminism with a story that poses more than a few problems.
The play as a whole, then, is about the idea of Pride and Prejudice. On press night, the audience groaned at the first mention of Collins long before he was seen; it’s to this audience that the adaptation best plays (and Matthew Romain is another highlight in a version of Collins who is unrelentingly insulting to Elizabeth and her sisters). Matt Whitchurch trolls the audience mercilessly as Darcy with talk of visiting the lake or going for a swim; the eventual appearance of the infamous wet t-shirt is perfectly pitched. Alex Sawyer keeps the frame character of the actor playing Wickham close to the surface, playing up his status as poser. These are caricatures; yet Darcy and Elizabeth somehow still manage to find tender moments to establish their connection and invest in their happy ending – even though the final song holds up the idea of the happy ending to just scrutiny. The text puts love itself through the wringer, holding it up to historical, fiscal, emotional and political scrutiny, and finds that it still somehow manages to believe in it.
It’s still rough, as of press night. The timings are off, with some odd pauses and too many jokes undercut by hasty delivery; the songs need tightening; and the slightly awkward doubling, including characters changing mid-scene, creates some mild staging confusion (also, Olivia Onyehara and Alice Haig are so perfect as Lydia, Miss Bingley, Kitty and Caroline that it’s a genuine disappointment whenever one character has to change into another). But the cast is so winsome, the dialogue is so sharp and the audience seem to be having such a good time that the rough edges don’t matter. Somehow, an inspired creative team and a game company have made Pride and Prejudice fresh again, and that’s no small achievement.